Philly's Evolving Row House



There is something extremely refreshing about the projects coming from the people over at Onion Flats. Though ambitious, they aren't overly theoretical.  Though beautiful, they haven't been overworked aesthetically.  Though spacious and well built, they aren't overpriced. But above all, the buildings of Onion Flats offer a sound rebuttal to those who claim that architecture is no longer relevant to the lives of the regular people, communities, and cities that it purports to serve.  

The latest addition to the firm's growing list of built projects is the Thin Flats, which sit on a small side street next to a large brick factory building in the Fishtown region of Philadelphia.  The Flats are comprised of two separate buildings- a cluster of duplexes packed between two conventional brick row houses and a single duplex still finishing up construction at the end of the block.  The duplexes will be the first in the country to receive a LEED platinum rating once fully completed, and the project has been nominated for Philadelphia's 2009 Sustainability Awards, the website of which offers a formal listing of the building's sustainable features written by Tim McDonald, an Onion Flats partner and founder. 

Important to note in this write up is Mr. McDonald's view of sustainability as a matter of common sense that offers "intelligent, rational, cost effective and 'natural' ways of being, thinking, and designing" and shouldn't be turned to as a trend.  He adds that "we look forward to the day when 'green' is not the new 'black'...but rather the old 'blue', tried and true". [1]                     


A catchy bit of rhetoric, to be sure, but what McDonald's description of the project evidences is a valuation of sustainability as something much more than just an afterthought in the design process.  In the Thin Flats, for example, the most distinctive elements of spatial composition can be directly tied to sustainable considerations: the densely packed units which minimize the energy needed to distribute amenities, the depth and porosity of the facade which has insulating value and allows better ventilation, the provision for maximum daylighting which reduces the need for artificial lighting and heating, the open green space on the roof that keeps heat in during the winter and out during the summer.  

These are all simple, passive ways of conditioning space, but they are ingeniously intertwined with the way one experiences and moves through the spaces of the building, and they recall a time in architecture when complex mechanical systems for conditioning weren't yet available and the primary means for making an environment suitable for human occupants was the very physicality of the building itself.

Of course, this building does partially rely on mechanical systems, but much of the equipment for them is neatly tucked into the facade, adding further texture and complexity to its appearance.  By result, the interior spaces are largely free of the ugly ducts, pipes, and vents that are commonly exposed in lower cost housing projects because they don't get accounted for until late in the game.  Absent this clutter, the rooms feel light and airy, and their diverse material palette is given added clarity.  As in the traditional row house model, the general progression through the building is in the vertical direction through a well defined circulation core, with the larger spaces pushed to the front or back.  








This project and others like it in Philadelphia are significant for reasons that go beyond the successes each achieves as an individual work to larger considerations of the impact they are having on surrounding communities and the city at large.  Fishtown, the aforementioned neighborhood where most of Onion Flats' work is being built, has a working class population that suffered hard from the de-industrialization of major American cities in the 1950s and the increase in poverty that accompanied it.  It is not an easy place to build, nor was it an attractive place to live before the efforts of Onion Flats began bringing it back to life and prompting other creative minds to take interest.

Furthermore, the transparency of their endeavor is especially unique.  I can think of few other firms who would allow and even encourage a random passerby such as myself to come in, tour, and take photographs of a building during construction on multiple occasions.  Another man who walked by once during my time on the site was personally greeted by Mr. McDonald (who seems to be everywhere at once) and given a description of the project's status- he turned out to be one of the many enthusiastic community members on the board that gave it a green light.  Each call I've made to the firm's office is answered not by a secretary, or an intern, but by Mr. McDonald himself, who is always more than willing and even eager to hear what you have to say.  Finally, Onion Flats designs and builds all of their projects in house, and thus retains full control and knowledge of any complications that might arise on their way to completion. 

The value of having an organization like this working in Philadelphia cannot be understated.  As the founding members of the firm explain in this comprehensive article written for Philadelphia Magazine in 2006, the conservative legacy of urban planning and development left by those like Edmund Bacon, the city planner who kept Kahn's visions for Center City unrealized, has remained stubbornly dominant here.  Thanks to the bar set by Onion Flats, however, this condition is beginning to change, given added steam by the new mayor's support and encouragement of forward thinking sustainable development. Many other young firms have joined Onion Flats in beginning to successfully push innovative design ideas for the city, and a number of their unorthodox buildings can already be seen under construction.  Of course things have become tighter with the current economic turndown, but the reasonable cost and widespread desirability of these projects could be the very recipe for pushing through the rough times at hand.  

You can be sure that regardless of what happens, Tim McDonald and the rest of his group won't jump ship and take their talents to wherever the next easiest job is.  In a recent meeting, Mr. McDonald firmly indicated to me that he had no desire to pursue projects elsewhere and that his vision was meant for Philadelphia alone- (indeed, the only project they have under construction outside of Philly is for a family member in California).  With so many other architects pursuing lucrative building projects in places like China or Dubai where their creative licenses and recognizable brands are championed, such an impassioned attempt to focus on one American city in desperate need of a progressive voice strikes me as being very rare and admirable.  More importantly, it suggests a certain attribute that we're going to need more of if architecture is to have a positive influence during our current and future times of need: integrity.                

For more information on Onion Flats, visit their website!

[1] McDonald, Timothy. Philadelphia Sustainability Awards

(Photograph Credits: Jared Langevin)


Gabriel A. Cuéllar said...

Thanks for the great post.

This work overall looks good and seems well considered. The interior spaces nicely sized and surprisingly well lit (by the sun). The materials seem durable too.

I do have some issues with the front façades. First, the materials (metal, some engineered panels, frosted glass) do not insinuate residential/domestic architecture. In fact, this palette seems very commercial (not in terms popularity, but in terms of commerce/stores). The small details and nuances that make up the façades do appear more special than typical storefronts, but that doesn't shed the coolness/sterility of the composition.

Second, the entrances also appear rather impersonal and maybe paranoid. The adjacent houses have recognizable front doors at the street level and acknowledge the sidewalk. The new flats seem to have a standoffish attitude toward the street, as if security was much more important than street level activity. Where's about the infamous Philly front porch?

What's your take on this? Maybe some more context photos of these two buildings would clarify?

Regardless, I'm pretty impressed by these projects.

13thMonkey said...

Another great post, and my apologies for being slow in the commentary, as there is so much to touch on here.

First, let me say that I had the privilege of hearing Mr. MacDonald speak last year and it was impressive. The fact that, one year later, his work appears to be holding up the standard which his words entailed, is great and should be commended. Interesting trivia piece: Tim has his Masters in Architectural Theory from McGill University. For me, that illustrates the continuing need to study both ends of the architectural coin, theory and fabrication, for success.

Second, while I can see Gabriel's point about the facade, the articulation doesn't bother me. The material separation of the domus from the commercial, I would suggest to be a 19th century material phenomenon. Consider that pre-industrialization, the materials used for homes and stores were no different. Each used some variant of brick, stone or wood. Perhaps trend of associating icon with material is which needs to be reversed?

What I do find more frustrating are the interior white walls. Even with such a custom minded, and forward thinking office such as OF, we still end up with interiors filled with walls that could be ads for Chlorox. Why?!

Those minor grievances aside, these projects do appear to produce a lot of good, and Fishtown is a neighborhood who needs the help. I was there in 2005 and remember thinking how much potential the area had, and it is good to see someone providing that spark, while doing so in a truly advantageous manner.

Jared Langevin said...

Josh, I do agree with you that the walls on the interior could be more vibrant. I think that pictures probably don't do them as much justice as they would, say, on a sunny day where they reflect more light and make the space seem bigger. But still- given the eclectic nature of the facade, you expect more of that to happen on the interior.

Gabriel- I think that while the concern with the material palette used in the facade is understandable, it doesn't have as cool/sterile an effect as you might think in person. In fact, the weaving of so many materials of different color and weight gives a real character to the facade that hits you the second you turn the corner. The materiality also does well to suggest the facade's function as a housing for many of the building's utilities, which in turn allow for very spacious interiors as I mentioned in the article.

Concerning your comment about being standoffish to the street- the clever interweaving of solid/void here stands in stark contrast to surrounding and typical rowhouses, which are known for their very flat and 2D facades that, when put next to one another, sometimes form a very UNinviting wall of buildings. Additionally, since the voids allow inhabitants a convenient open air experience of the street outside from within their apartments, the facade actually enables quite a bit of connection between the street and inhabitants of the Flats- in a conventional Philly row house, this is only possible through a small front stoop which is in my experience rarely occupied for more than a few seconds while coming/going. And though there are indeed no front stoops in this project, the doors are very large and inviting when opened and the nature of each being just part of the facade's larger composition rightly suggests the fact that these are not individual units but part of a greater and more sustainable model for rowhouses.

suresh said...

Thank you for the info. It sounds pretty user friendly. I guess I’ll pick one up for fun. thank u

Row House